Ever since Graham Greene made it respectable, the thriller has gradually become the dominant form of the modern political novel. V. S. Naipaul's Guerrillas and Paul Theroux's The Family Arsenal are two recent examples of the use of a thriller format by serious novelists. Although James D. Atwater remains more strictly within the genre, his sympathetic diptych of hero and adversary, a careful, journalistic realism, and the latent theme of class antagonism elevate Time Bomb to something more than an "entertainment."

David Thomas is a retired, feargnawed, bomb expert; Patrick Reilly is a clever, sensitive young Irishman with a flair for explosives. Both are decent working-class men who are manipulated into devoting their skills to the struggle between Ireland and England. Inevitably, the grublike Cassidy of the IRA and the supercilious Home Secretary pit these two likeable figures against each other: can Reilly create a bomb that Thomas cannot dismantle?

Throughout the suspenseful progress of their duel, the two men feel themselves increasingly trapped by the burden of the past, by love for their fathers, by a common hatred for the English ruling class. Eventually, each must be goaded to the final, unwanted showdown: Reilly longs only for escape through love and Thomas asks for himself whether he too might be making bombs were he born in Belfast instead of Wales. (Viking, $8.95)

Michael Dirda